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Belém, Brazil

Queen of Tecnobrega: Gaby Amarantos

Queen of Tecnobrega: Gaby Amarantos
Gaby Amarantos (Credit: Junior Franch)

The story of the "Brazilian Beyoncé" from Belém who brought an Amazonian music revolution to Brazil and the world.

By Marlon Bishop
February 14, 2013

The album cover for Gaby Amarantos’ major-label debut, Treme, tells much of the story for her. She’s standing in front of a giant sound system covered in jungle foliage, and wearing a purple leather leotard and black-knee high boots. She’s holding a glow-stick leash attached to a growling black panther. And she’s shooting lasers from her boobs. (Thanks, Lazertits)

The cover playfully makes fun of the cocktail of futurism, tackiness and sexuality found in tecnobrega, the electronic party sound from Brazil’s Amazonian north. But don’t be fooled by the imagery: this isn’t some irony-drenched hipster project (see: Banda UÓ). Gaby Amarantos is 100 percent, certifiably the “real thing”. She grew up in the poor outskirts of Belém. As a member of the popular band Technoshow, Gaby has been blasting out of building-sized speaker systems in ‘hoods all over the Amazon since the early days of the genre.  Along the way, she earned the nickname “Beyoncé of Pará,” for her trademark look: black leotard a la the “Single Ladies” video, and dyed blonde hair.

So, it’s tremendously cool that she’s become the person to make the once-marginalized style blow-up massively around Brazil. Her album Treme is the first major label release of tecnobrega ever, over a decade after the music became popular in the Amazon, and people all over the country are going crazy for the genre. And it’s bigger than that: through tecnobrega, Gaby is bringing Brazil into the future, giving it a sound that is electronic and cutting-edge and pop-oriented and uniquely Brazilian all at once. You’re welcome, world.

I spoke with Gaby on the phone in Belém, where she still lives, and she dropped extreme knowledge about the roots of tecnobrega, the future of Brazilian music, and how to do a soundystem party right (hint: inflatable kiddie pool required).

 What are you up to currently?

Currently I’m playing a lot of shows. I’m preparing my next music video. We are launching a live DVD in February that was recorded in the street in front of my house in the Jurunas neighborhood on the outskirts of Belém. This time of year, I’ve been really busy with Carnival performances. I’m already working on my new album, and doing lots of interviews, lots of promotion, lots and lots of work.

Alright, first things first, for the uninitiated: What is tecnobrega?

Tecnobrega is a musical style that originated in the outskirts of Belém in the late ’90s. We had a music scene called brega [“tacky music”], and tecnobrega is a modern version of with electronic beats and synthesizers. The lyrics talk about the Belém aparelhagem parties, which are a kind of mega sound system, and these parties always have a DJ duo that plays to thousands of people. In 2003, tecnobrega blew up in the Amazon region. Now in 2013, it’s taking over in Brazil.

The chorus of your first single from this last album “Xirley”, translates to “I’m going to sample you, I’m going to rob you.” What’s that all about?

“Xirley” is the first real tecnobrega music video, which discusses this music scene and explains how we sample a lot of foreign music in tecnobrega, making new versions of international songs. The first productions were made on computers with software that we downloaded from the internet and instructions in English we couldn’t read. But by putting beats together we created and developed a new sound, which has a bit of Amazonian music in it, a little flavor of indigenous drumming, mixed with brega music that speaks of love, betrayal, relationships, happiness, drunkenness, and having fun. It started as ghetto music from Belém, and now everybody is listening to it.

Gaby Amarantos’ first single, “Xirley”

For your major label debut, Treme, you can still hear all the synths, but there’s also an introduction of guitars and other instruments. Was your concept to take tecnobrega to a new level?

That’s right. Tecnobrega grew independently out of a need that we had. When we invented tecnobrega, it was very cheap. You would spent $500 to make a CD, because everything was electronic. It lowered the costs, but it didn’t have the quality standards that the music industry demands. But when we decided to do Treme, it was a way to improve on the talent that already existed by recording in a quality studio with a good microphone, putting in other instruments that we didn’t normally have, like acoustic instruments, more percussion. We had never used a bass, but we put in a bass guitar, different kinds of keyboards and beats that were more equalized. All without losing the essence of the music.

The essence is present in my voice, in my way of singing, being a woman who still lives on the outskirts of the city in the same house on the same street in the same neighborhood. Even with all this fame, I live in the same place, I’m always attending the same parties to hear what’s new in order to put it in my music. Treme is a way to translate tecnobrega for Brazil and the world in order for people to understand the music better.

Do people from Belém like this version of the music that you are doing, or do they prefer the more lo-fi version?

People are really enjoying what we are doing. Many artists from Belém don’t do it because they can’t afford it, because it’s expensive. I saved my whole career to do this record. It thought, “If I want Brazil to get to know tecnobrega, for the world to get to know it, I have to record it with better quality.”

So yeah, The DJs play our songs at parties, on the radio. And it’s the only tecnobrega music that plays outside of Pará, in Brazil and worldwide. We broke through the boundary to let this music out of here, to show that it’s not only the music of the ghetto. Many people here in Belém who disliked tecnobrega, ended up liking it because of Treme. They disregarded tecnobrega, talked bad about it, but we managed to convince audiences to give it a chance.

How is an aparelhagem (soundsystem) party in Belém? Is it fun?

It’s really fun. They’ve been around for decades. Before, they played other types of music. Lambada, samba, lots of Latin music, Caribbean music, music that is popular in Brazil. In ’98, the aparelhagems exploded with tecnobrega. Artists like me didn’t even have to think about how to get on the radio, because our songs were heard at the soundsystem parties, and became hits.

The sound is very loud and there are giant speakers. There is a booth where the DJs are and down below are little clustered groups of fans. These people have buckets full of beer, some bring along inflatable plastic pools that they jump into, they climb onto the table to dance, drink beer, or set off firecrackers. It’s very exciting. It is a type of excitement that I have never seen anywhere in the world.

All you have to do is come to one – there are many videos on YouTube for you to see what it’s all about. Super Pop, Mega Principe Negro, Badalasom. Each aparelhagem has their own fans. People argue over which aparelahgem is the best or which one gets the crowd most pumped.

There’s also an aspect of social inclusion, because the DJs call out the names of people. People are happy because the DJ shouted them out. You can take a picture and send it to the DJ, and he’ll puts the photo on the screen.

What does your album title, Treme, mean?

Treme is a high energy dance that we do at the parties, a really fast kind shaking in front of the speaker. There are “treme” dance battles which you can find on YouTube if you look.

You have a song on Treme called “Mergenue Latino,” a kind of merengue-tecnobrega. I thought that was interesting because you don’t hear a lot of music from other parts of Latin America in Brazil often…

Our musical influences in the Amazon are different from São Paulo and Rio. Since we are closer to the Caribbean and we are part of the Amazon, many people grew up listening to Latin music – lambadas, merengues, cumbias. The newer stuff too – reggaeton, zouk. “Merengue Latino” is a Latin lambada with electronic beats, which in my opinion is a very catchy song, you want to start dancing when you listen to it.

I have to ask about this your nickname “Beyoncé of Pará.” How did that start?

I was at a festival for Carnaval 2010 in Recife. I was doing a show with my band Tecnoshow. At the time the show started, the keyboard broke and the computer had only the instrumental version of “Single Ladies,” which we did in Portuguese as “Tô Solteira.” I had an outfit similar to that which Beyoncé wears in the video for “Single Ladies,” so I started joking that I was Beyoncé. Afterwards the newspapers wrote that I am the Brazilian Beyoncé.

That started making people curious about my work, it opened many doors. At first, people just wanted to know what this all about, Beyoncé from the Amazon? Later, I was able to show that Gaby Amarantos has music of her own, and left the Beyoncé thing behind. I don’t want to be Beyoncé, she’s wonderful, but I like being Gaby. I think it’s really cool to be Gaby.

It seems now that Amazonian music is conquering the whole of Brazil. People from São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro are listening to lots of tecnobrega and other styles from the North. Do you think now is the time for the Amazon?

I’m sure of it. We are already living this moment that people are very interested in what we’re doing. It’s Brazilian music, but it’s music that has an accent, a different style. It’s a modern style with beats and synths, but we don’t want to imitate American or European music – we want to make our version of modernity.

Many people think that Amazon only has the forest, indigenous people, rivers, alligators, boats, so when people listen, they say “Wow, they have so much cool music in Para.” They are very surprised because they think we do not have advanced technology. It’s very nice to cause this surprise, to show that besides indigenous people we have good music too. We are very proud of our forests, our rivers, our Indians, and also the music that we make.

It is a very cool moment that everyone is interested in our music. I know I’m one of the people that is making important contributions to this process. There’s so much cool stuff to see. Come to Belém, come. We have to bring that culture to the world because the world needs to treme to tecnobrega.

You said you still live in your home in Belém. Do you think you will stay in Belém forever? You’ve had a lot of success in the music industry, I imagine you can leave if you want.  Why stay?

Because every time I return to Belém, ever time that I go back to the neighborhood where I live, I remember who I am. In my neighborhood, I learned not to be prejudiced about any kind of music, religion, or sexual preference, nothing. On the outskirts, in Belém, we are very free. We feel very different from São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro, where people are still stuck, people are very concerned about what other people will say. In Belém, no. At an aparelhagem party, people get drunk, they hit the floor they are so drunk, but they do not even care because the next day there’s no social column to be written up in.

A woman who lives on the outskirts will not be worried if she can’t fit into size 36 jeans because she is a size 44. If she’s into a guy, she goes up to the guy and says “I like you.” That’s why I can’t leave. The freedom you feel at an aparelhagem. You are happy with little there. So I could have a home somewhere else, spend some time in another place, but my home is in Belém and that is where I always want to come back to.

Translation by Greg Scruggs

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